Musical Austerity, Musical Plenty

The late Masabumi Kikuchi has a testament, the solo piano concert Black Orpheus just released on ECM.

It was an honor to get to know Masabumi a little bit. He was the real deal, a 20th-century scoundrel/genius/artist in solitary and stubborn pursuit of his greatest work. The best tracks on Black Orpheus are perfect music.

I was pleased when Manfred Eicher asked me to contribute liner notes. As far as I am concerned, Masabumi is part of the history of this music.

Ben Ratliff review of Black Orpheus.

Masabumi Kikuchi DTM interview.

Masabumi believed in one thing: trying to make each note a private singularity. Of course he had influences, he even made concept albums, but “being Masabumi and no one else” was the end goal.

That’s always the goal for every serious poetic artist, although in the postmodern era it gets harder and harder to do. As Mark Turner says, “It takes longer to be great now because there is so much more to learn.”

Speaking of Ben Ratliff and the pursuit of knowledge, I learned a lot reading Ratliff’s latest book. Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty is a manifesto of the postmodern age, declaring that is our duty to take on all kinds of music with equal seriousness.

“Musical plenty” is very much our moment. Perhaps it will remain our moment until the human race outgrows the personal computer.

The question remains: How deep are you listening to all that “plenty?” Ratliff hears a tremendous amount, and his fluid and poetic prose style is always a pleasure to read. His mildly sardonic yet utterly sincere attitude when addressing Mariah Carey or Grateful Dead fandom is almost a kind of genius.

Ratliff was first known as a jazz critic, not as a general music critic, but an important harbinger of his eclectic tastes was an early insistence on Afro-Cuban as essential to jazz. (Most jazz players know this but it few critics have emphasized it like Ratliff.)

The real point of something like Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen In an Age of Musical Plenty is to make the reader go buy some records. Ratliff got me with Patato & Totico.

There are many distinctions to Patato & Totico, the record made in 1968 with Totico Arango singing over Patato Valdés’s percussion, accompanied by Arsenio Rodríguez on tres, Cachao Lóoez on bass, three players on claves, and a five-man vocal chorus. It is the closest thing the the 1960s New York rumba community—an exile Afro-Latin culture that regularly gathered to play in public spaces—had to an authoritative document.


Its tracks are poetic rituals, not like most of what we listen to in this world. They’re street-rumba tracks, but they’re untrue to street-rumba reality: they are not field recordings or standard, flat, fast-and-cheap documents. They include a guitarist, or actually a tresero: categorically an ingredient not normally heard with rumba, and specifically the best tresero ever to have lived. 

I can’t remember the last time a CD refused to leave my home stereo player quite like Patato & Totico. It just stays in there. I play it for everybody who comes over. What an album, perfect in every way. The presence of tres and bass make it perhaps especially relevant for comparatively unhip jazz players like myself, a gateway to assimilating a tiny bit more detail about the vast mysteries of Afro-Cuban music.

Billy Hart knows a lot about Afro-Cuban music. The very first time I went to his house he played field recordings from Africa and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.

There’s a new release of a historical gig, Getz/Gilberto ’76, a night at the Keystone Korner with João Gilberto playing Gilberto music with Stan Getz’s quartet with Joanne Brackeen, Clint Houston, and Billy Hart.

Of course, I am a Billy Hart disciple and devotee, but: Jabali deserves a special award for his stunning drumming on Getz/Gilberto ’76. The subtle syncopations of Gilberto’s guitar are matched perfectly by Billy Hart, first by “simple” dry cross-sticking clave patterns and then by peaceful undulations with the whole complement of drums and cymbals. Billy definitely studied for this one.

I’m actually in Brazil right now. It’s raining softly: the window is open slightly: João Gilberto is singing.

While the blues fest was raging outside in Paraty last night I was in bed, reading Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues, a new volume edited by Paul Devlin. Sincere thanks to Devlin for this important labor of love.

Murray was kind of like Masabumi Kikuchi in a way, a man committed to one precise vision. Part of their genius was to be provocative. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent important article about Murray in The Nation posits Murray and Ta-Nehisi Coates as antipodes.

At any rate, Murray is rare touchstone writer for jazz. Indeed, there’s an argument that the later career of Wynton Marsalis and the entire edifice of Jazz at Lincoln Center is founded on Murray’s work. This is the only case of a major jazz musician treating the work of a major jazz writer with such reverence.

I’m still reading Murray Talks Music –the highlight so far is Murray’s interview of an outspoken Billy Eckstine–but wanted to mention it on DTM in order to preview an event at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem on Wednesday (that I’ll be very sorry to miss): Murray Talks Music: A Book Party and Discussion.

Related DTM:

Notes on Albert Murray Memorial

Study Up on Albert Murray by Paul Devlin.